WASHINGTON – The Bush administration swiftly distanced itself Tuesday from a suggestion by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson (search) that American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search), long at odds with U.S. foreign policy.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), appearing at a Pentagon news conference, said when asked: "Our department doesn't do that kind of thing. It's against the law. He's a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."
Acknowledging differences with the Caracas government, and saying it should be promoting democracy in the Western Hemisphere, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson's remarks "inappropriate."
"This is not the policy of the United States government. We do not share his views," McCormack said of Robertson's suggestion that the United States "take out" Chavez to stop Venezuela from becoming a "launching pad for communist influence and Muslim extremism."
A Robertson spokeswoman, Angell Watts, said he would not do interviews Tuesday and had no statement elaborating on his remarks.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson (search) issued a statement denouncing Robertson's remarks as "morally reprehensible and dangerously suggestive."
Jackson, in a telephone interview, said Rumsfeld's criticism of the Venezuelan leader on a trip last week to Latin America had raised concerns.
Rumsfeld and other administration officials have linked Chavez with Cuban President Fidel Castro as destabilizing troublemakers in fragile Latin American democracies.
Last week, on the way home from Paraguay and Peru, Rumsfeld told reporters, "There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in an unhelpful way."
Backing Rumsfeld, the State Department said Venezuela was using its oil money to destabilize Bolivia and Ecuador.
In Washington, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez said Tuesday, "We are concerned about the safety of the president." He said measures should be taken to guarantee Chavez's safety any time he visits the United States.
Chavez is expected to attend the special session of the U.N. General Assembly next month in New York.
Robertson, 75, is a founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a supporter of President Bush, who was elected twice with the solid backing of Christian conservatives.
"I would think that people around the world would take the comments for what they are," McCormack said. "They are the expression of one citizen."
The United States was believed in the past to have been involved in the assassination in 1963 of South Vietnam President Ngo Binh Diem and attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Political assassination was put off-limits by former President Gerald R. Ford in an executive order in the mid-1970s.
Rumsfeld said he knew of no consideration ever having been given to assassinating Chavez.
"Not to my knowledge and I would think I would have knowledge," Rumsfeld said.
McCormack said, "Any accusations or any idea that we are planning to take hostile action against Venezuela or the Venezuelan government — any ideas in that regard — are totally without fact and baseless."
The spokesman said the administration had urged Venezuela "to play a positive role in the hemisphere" and to have "an open, transparent and positive relationship that you would have between two sovereign states anywhere around the world."